There’s something about Tom Petty’s sweet song Wildflowers that ensures the fact that no matter who covers it, or how many times one hears it, it’s bound to remain as indelible as ever. A great song stands up to any cover effort, and still radiates with the same appeal each and every time.
That’s clearly the case on What Moves Mountains, the sophomore set from the Wisconsin-based band that possesses the unlikely handle of Chicken Wire Empire. Their take on the song varies little from the original, but in this bluegrass/grassicana mode, it remains as compelling as ever. In a larger sense, it represents the vibe and motivation that drives this band as it continues its transition from a traditional template towards a more progressive posture.
The band, which currently consists of founders Jordan Kroeger (bass) and Ryan Ogburn (mandolin) and newer recruits Jon Peik (banjo), Ernest Brusubardis IV (fiddle), and Greg Brundage (guitar), originated as a jam band torn between bluegrass roots and a more contemporary orientation. That juxtaposition still remains, but happily there’s a clear compromise as well. That’s evident in the consecutive songs that start the album – from the upbeat ramble of album opener Still In Love to the weary resolve of Hope, the song that follows. “I’m tired and broke but I’m not gonna let them win,” they declare with the latter, taking a decidedly determined stance that would serve anyone well who feels the frustration that life often brings with it these days.
Elsewhere on the album, the band demonstrates its ability to effectively vary the tone and template. A reworking of Bill Monroe’s Old Dangerfield maintains a low-key feel without sacrificing the band’s obvious instrumental dexterity. Likewise, the sad, sensitive ballad, 7 ft. Man, brings a feeling of regret and remorse. Reckless elevates the energy, but the sound and sentiment hews to a personal perspective. Maker falls somewhere in-between, courtesy of a demonstrative stomp and surge. A take on Going Down the Road Feeling Bad may feel redundant at this point, but it too offers the outfit a chance to share its interplay as it veers from reserve to revelry.
It’s little surprise that other than a handful of its offerings, the band writes it own material, a definite help in distinguishing Chicken Wire Empire from a crowded competitive field. The result is an effort that may not move mountains as the title implies, but regardless still reflects an obvious upward climb.